This morning I went to a cafe to work on the script. The directing part of the script. I read through my old notes on Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, an excellent book on directing. The main thesis of the book is that every movie has a theme, a central principle, truth, or message.
That theme guides all other choices. Once you have that theme, it’s easier to make your decisions and answer questions.
I spent about three hours thinking through the theme and how I want the camera to move and what do to with framing, the key moments of the film, the tone, and the rhythm. The rhythm is so important to me and I’ve learned from experience not to leave this to the editing room because there’s only so much you can do with cutting.
The movie is dialogue-heavy so it needs to feel in motion and to move forward at all times, so as not to get stuck in the single location.
And I leafed through my dog-eared copy of Werner Herzog’s book, A Guide for the Perplexed, which I love dearly.
When he’s not talking about being shot in the stomach or bamboozling border agents, he says things like:
The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself.
Guess that one stuck.
This should be a lesson to filmmakers today with inexpensive digital technology at their disposal. You need only a good story and guts to make a film, the sense that it absolutely has to be made.
I learnt that the worst sin a filmmaker can commit is to bore his audience and fail to captivate from the very first moment.
And of course because why not
I tried things out with various pigs during pre-production, but none of them became altitude sick.
Another busy couple of weeks as pre-production intensifies on the feature film. Every time I feel like I’m on top of things, new things come up. The schedule, shot lists, finalizing the DP, food planning, contracts, etc. Sometimes it seems like there’s hardly any time to deal with the actual work of directing — thinking about and planning how to shoot the actual film, how to talk to the actors, etc.
Today I took a bit of a break. I try to keep some semblance of a day off on Sundays, with a leisurely morning and only some basic writing (i.e. journaling).
In the afternoon, I went up to 2112 to participate on a panel about pre-production for a group of female comedy filmmakers. The program is run by WiCo (Women in Comedy) and they asked for volunteers to talk about pre-production and other aspects of filmmaking.
One of the questions was “what went wrong on one of your projects?” and I told a story about the first time I directed anything (Words Fail Me). A few minutes into the improvisation on the first take in the first episode, I realized that I didn’t know what to say after saying “cut” and I was so nervous that I let the actors go on for about eight minutes while I thought of notes to give them.
After that I learned to keep a note in my back pocket at all times, so at the beginning of the day, I know what to say when I don’t know what to say. Sometimes you just watch a scene and think “hm” and don’t really know what to do and it takes a few takes to figure out why it’s not working the way you imagined it would work.
The Americans is over. It’s the only TV drama I’ve been able to get into in a long time and it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was an intense, heart-wrenching episode with some really nice surprises. Excellent writing.
Rewriting the script today.
We did a table read on Wednesday. The beginning doesn’t work, the story takes too long to gets moving.
And I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle scenes where a group of people are talking and not really moving. Time to go to the well…
I decided it’s better to make them move more and talk less, to give them props, and let the characters inhabit and interact with the space more.
I re-watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and saw how Bunuel moves the camera and the characters around to say so much and play with the frame.
Once I have the thought that they have to move, it gives the scenes more life. Not just speaking words, but moving each other around, pushing and pulling with words.
And re-watched Rope as well, another dinner party film.
Last night we looked at another location. I’m not going to post photos of it because the owners lives there (as opposed to just renting it out on AirBnB). It’s a promising option. I’m hoping that we lock down the location this week.
We’re working with Compass Casting for… casting. Auditions start and (with luck) finish next week. Two of the big three are close to complete. We’re still talking to DPs, which is the last of the big three things that you need to make a movie. Or that we need at least. I’m breathing a little bit easier now.
The most stressful time is when all three of those are complete unknowns and you’re talking to people but you can never really talk to them because you don’t know that you’ll have one of the other things in place, which means you can’t really be sure of your dates. I prefer to work linearly. It’s easier for me to hunker down and work through something. It’s very unnerving to work on three things that are all uncertain and all rely on each other.
I think that after the first time, it will be easier and I will be confident. My first short film felt like this, only 10x worse.
Tonight I’m going to see Hinds at Lincoln Hall with some friends so I can check out and relax a bit until it starts again tomorrow.
Up to Appleton, WI today with the producer and a non-film friend to see about another house.
The movie takes place almost entirely in a single home, so getting the right house is important. It’s so much easier finding one location instead of 30 or 40 (like insanely easier), but it’s still a bit difficult to find a house that we can use for two weeks with our limited budget.
We’ve been mostly talking to people on AirBnB and they’ve been much more amenable to letting us use their houses, because they’re already letting people stay in them. Finding a homeowner willing to vacate his or her house for two weeks is almost impossible on our budget. An apartment would’ve been much easier.
That has set us further afield than Chicago, where rental rates are lower. On the one hand, this is more difficult because it means it takes an entire day to scout a single location and there are logistical challenges with production. Will the cast and crew be willing to go away for two weeks? And if we go outside the city, we need a second house to lodge the cast and crew.1
We’re treating it a bit like going away to summer camp. Yes, you’re working all day, but in the evenings you are sharing meals and drinks in the warm summer air, outside of the city and away from your day-to-day life. For some that will be too inconvenient, but for the people that join us, we’re hoping to create an unforgettable experience and forge friendships for life.
A conversation with friends on a summer evening is better than going home to Netflix.
And I really want the making of this film to be a special experience. It’s a low-budget affair and in a perfect world, it serves as a calling card for myself and the others involved, furthering our careers. Maybe on the next one, it’s a little easier to raise money…
But beyond that — beyond making a good film (which is nearly impossible) — I want it to be a fun, joyful experience. Something that people look back on and remember fondly. The best possible outcome is a good film and great memories, with the people we bring together forming bonds for life.
Appleton is a small city in northern Wisconsin, about 190 miles north of Chicago and 100 miles north of Milwaukee. About 70,000 people live there. The main street is thriving with shops, cafes, and a performing arts center. Away from the main drag are streets with colorful houses and big front porches. People don’t lock their doors there and the air is crisp and fresh.
We visited an occult bookstore with an in-house psychic and the book selection was wonderfully eccentric. Where else can you find a book on bird magic?
OK well I just found it on Amazon, but you get the point. And hey, it’s actually well-reviewed there, with 4.2 out of 5 stars, although one person did have this to say:
Sigh. As usual, a magical book with no balanced perspective on masculine/feminine energies. I really do not like metaphysical books that claim to be about balance and harmony while ignoring half of the energetic balance of nature. I was excited to get this book from both a naturalist and Pagan perspective but if a book gets such a crucial thing wrong, it makes the whole book suspect that to me
This was my favorite title:
I opened to a random page and found a chapter called something like “how to know if the spirit you’re talking to is really your loved one,” which yeah, of course, once you start to consider this seriously, there are some practicalities that have to be worked out, like ID verification.
Soon enough, all spirits will be given unique public keys on the blockchain and we’ll all look back and laugh at our archaic analog methods of spirit-ID-verification like giving your loved one a secret passcode that only they know before they die.
Fun fact I learned from Futility Closet last week: Houdini, who spent much of his career disproving psychic mediums, actually gave his wife a secret code, just in case he came back as a spirit (he didn’t). I don’t remember the episode, but it’s a great podcast.
After touring the town and calling our mothers for Mother’s Day, we went to a restaurant overlooking the Fox River, then drove back down to Chicago (after a stop for ice cream from Culver’s).
We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. ↩
Yesterdays travels were long and we returned home at night. No rest though, we had to meet up with a friend to talk about our plan for casting the film (after a jaunt to Costco for a windshield wiper blade and sundries).
Had a few drinks while we talked about casting which had me just exhausted, so I woke up in a bit of a haze this morning and had to run out to meet some old friends for breakfast at my friend’s new apartment. He’s going to Barcelona next week for 10 weeks and the thought of that, I envy it.
The film has a weight and sometimes I wish I could toss off that weight and go to Barcelona and forget about it. But of course, I wouldn’t forget about it and how would I live with myself after such a cowardly decision?
These are good friends and we can only get together about once every two months, because of our busy schedules. I always feel energized after talking to them and I think about how much better life would be if we all lived within a few blocks of our best friends and could get together without planning.
After breakfast I emailed for about 4 hours, following up on yet more leads for a possible location (we’re looking for a single family home in Chicago or within a 3-hour drive) and putting together a table read for Wednesday to see how it plays on its feet.
I went to Fedex Office (formerly Fedex Kinko’s, formerly Kinko’s)1 to print out eight copies of the script.
The print job was messed up so I had to wait for 15 minutes while new copies were printed.
The very nice man who helped me filled the time with his thoughts on Avengers Infinity War, about which he had many detailed opinions and I tried to smile and nod along because I haven’t seen it.
Then I picked up snacks and drinks for the reading, put air in my car tires for another road trip tomorrow (this time to Appleton, WI), replaced the frayed wiper blade, and emailed invites to actors for the table read.
I love road trips.
What a bad name for a store, Kinko’s. ↩
Drove down to Paxton, IL today to see about a house to make a movie in.
There’s a real joy to this part of making a movie, getting out and meeting people that welcome you into their home and are excited about helping you and then taking for hours about how the house isn’t perfect but it will work and now we can relax because of the 3 possible disasters that might derail this thing, one at least has a workable situation and if it all works out then we get to spend 2 weeks in a quaint town with good summer air with good people and the chance at at a transcendent shared experience.
And then we found this burger joint across the train tracks with a menu that I thought was a joke but it was real and the burgers were $1.20 and fries were 80 cents.
And sometimes I hate how flat IL is but then I think of that DFW line that goes:
Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
Which is a very good line, to my ears at least, and I don’t know where I’m going with this except that there’s a real joy in doing things that are overwhelmingly difficult and it brings out emotions and fears and pleasures that I never knew I had, like when you do a new exercise and you get sore in muscles that you never noticed before.
Good night and look up Just Hamburgers if you’re ever in Paxton.
I don’t believe there are “rules” to formatting a screenplay. But there are some generally accepted guidelines. They’re easy to learn and don’t require reading a book.1
Recently I got an email from a student in a film program here in Chicago, inviting me to audition for his graduate thesis project, a feature film. I told him that I was interested but asked him to send me the script or an excerpt so I could prepare for the audition.
The script was in a PDF file (which, nothing wrong with that) but it had obviously been written in Microsoft Word. The margins were all wrong — the dialogue lines stretched far across the page, instead of falling into narrow columns near the center of the page.
That’s a red flag for two reasons: one, it shows that the producer doesn’t know (or care) about formatting it according to accepted standards. That matters not because I’m fanatical about formatting but because it makes me wonder what else the producer doesn’t care about.
If they can’t do something basic like this the right way, then what else are they going to be unprofessional about? Are they going to run a good rehearsal? Are they going to feed me on set? Will they respect my time? Will they pay me on time? Will the film be any good? Or is their attitude “whatever, it doesn’t matter.” If it’s a half-day shoot then it doesn’t matter so much, but it matters a lot when you’re asking someone for a 2-week commitment as a lead in a film.
The other reason is that the producer told me that the full script was 70 pages. But that’s 70 pages with the Microsoft Word formatting — with screenplay formatting, all those lines of dialogue are going to take up a lot more room. So the 70-page script might actually be 90 pages.
Now, maybe he’s used to working this way? Maybe his collaborators are? I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out on set that the 70-minute feature is actually a 140-minute feature and oh by the way we are already way behind schedule.
I’m really not so pedantic about formatting. You can make a screenplay with pictures and poems and spaces for improvisation and basically whatever you want. I think it would be cool to see more creativity in how screenplays are written. But if you’re going to do that, I think you should explain that you’re working differently and why. It’s not like the conventions are hard to follow.
OK rant over! Just use one of the free screenwriting programs. The damn formatting will be taken care of for you:
This page has a good diagram that explains the basic formatting: https://online.pointpark.edu/screenwriting/screenplay-format/ ↩
I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast. It’s great, as usual.
I put together a template for a short film with a budget of $10k. It assumes two days of shooting, which would be anywhere from six to twenty pages, depending on how fast you can move and how many setups you have.
The columns update automatically as you adjust crew rates and how many days they are needed.
The numbers are not meant to be exact — a lot of it depends on what your production needs are, how many days you shoot, and how many favors you can call in. It’s definitely possible to make a short film for less than $10k. You can do it for under $100 actually, but if you’re doing that, then you don’t need a spreadsheet to keep track of the budget.
And knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t make a $10k short film. There’s no market for short films and I would rather put that money towards a feature film. If you’re going to raise $10k, why not raise $25k? If I’m going to do a short now, it’s going to be in the $500 – $3,000 range.
Click here to open the budget spreadsheet. To edit it, you have to save a copy to your own Google Drive.